She followed him to the settle at the fireside and sat staring into the flames of the small fire crackling against the chill of the evening.
‘I said last week I would seek marriage offers for you.’
‘No!’ Alyce sprang up from the seat, her voice carrying across the room.
The servants clearing the table paused and watched.
‘If I am of no use in this household, I will find a place elsewhere.’
‘What ails you, girl?’ her father said, impatient. ‘All women want marriage.’
‘I will not marry Robert Chapman.’ Her worst days with Lady Faulconer would be as nothing compared to life with Chapman.
‘Pah!’ He scowled at her. ‘You would do well to learn humility—good women are led by their parents.’
She stared back at him—he did regard Chapman’s offer as worthy of consideration.
‘You said I would have the final say.’ Alyce’s voice creaked. ‘I would rather die than marry him.’ What evil had she done in life to earn such a living hell?
‘His is not the only offer.’ He patted the seat beside him. ‘Sit down.’
Alyce gripped her hands tight in her lap, her knuckles white. Who did he have in mind? Some aged man with grown children who would despise her?
‘Thomas Granville is interested too.’
She let go her breath. ‘Ah, his interest would be the dowry.’
‘He does want a wife. He needs someone to help his sister—her health is failing. From what I know of him, I doubt he would marry for money alone. And remember, all good marriages involve property and all parties try to make the best they can of it. Granville insists you agree to this marriage.’
‘How kind—a willing lamb to the slaughter.’ Alyce knew she was being unfair to Granville. Many men would not care. And, she suspected, he was a far better man than common rumour suggested.
‘And Robert does not care whether I am willing or not.’
‘Robin has much to recommend him. He is diligent and hardworking and knows the business well.’
‘And, in expectation of inheriting your business, the dowry would be much lower. Does the fact I despise him count for anything?’
‘Solid marriages can be built from inauspicious beginnings.’ Her father frowned. ‘What do you want, a love match?’
‘I am not a fool, Father,’ Alyce said bitterly. ‘I would like honour and respect. Even a mutual liking. And the freedom to make my own choice.’
‘Such freedom would be fine if you had plenty to choose from.’
Alyce drew a sharp breath. It was hardly her fault she had spent her most marriageable years in what amounted to exile.
‘Look,’ his voice softened. ‘Who has freedom in this life? Most of us do what we must. Love is no basis for marriage. Hard decisions need to be made. View marriage as a business decision—weigh the pros and cons. Love can grow later.’
‘So it must be Thomas Granville? He is charming, but word is he has debauched hundreds of women. The wife of such a man would have no peace of mind.’
‘God-a-mercy, girl. It is idle chatter. He is unmarried—you cannot expect a man to live like a monk.’
‘Women are expected to.’ All went to church. All heard the exhortations to continence. Nowhere did it say that these applied only to women. ‘St Paul said—’
‘I do not want to hear what St Paul said,’ her father raised his voice over hers. ‘We live in the world as it is where it is an entirely different matter for women, as you well know.’
‘And if I do not accept his offer?’
‘What future is there for you? In service for the rest of your days, a dependant in someone else’s household. When your mother and I are gone, where would your home be then?’
‘I could stay here…’ She knew she could make a useful place for herself if only given the chance.
‘Alyce. Have sense. As a single woman, even with wealth, you would be prey to every foul-tongued rumour-monger. They would have you a witch, a whore or worse.’ He leant forward, his palms spread on his thighs. ‘You must want a home of your own, children, a husband to keep you safe.’
‘In a perfect world—’
‘The present world is all we have. You have no choice but to consider these offers and decide on one.’
‘Can we not wait? You said we would take our time.’
‘And risk no one else offering?’
‘You think so little of me?’
He jerked his head. ‘If what is offered is good enough, grasp it. If you wait, hoping for a green girl’s dream, you will end up with nothing.’
Alyce, her lips pressed tight, rose from the bench.
‘Think on it tonight and tell me your decision on the morrow.’
‘My decision? It appears you have made it for me,’ Alyce said as she moved towards the stairs.